4 Stages of the Functioning Alcoholic

alcoholism stages

In 2018, an estimated 15 million people in the US showed signs of an Alcohol Use Disorder, but not every alcoholic hits rock bottom.

A functioning alcoholic is someone who is traversing alcoholism stages and has already developed a dependency, but still manages to maintain a hold on their life.

The 4 Alcoholism Stages of the Functioning Alcoholic

If you’re concerned about your own relationship with alcohol or someone close to you, then understanding the 4 stages of alcoholism can help you identify and prevent the development of alcoholism.   

Stage 1: Early Use (Pre-Alcoholic)

As with most relationships, the early stages are somewhat of a honeymoon period. A person’s relationship with alcohol is no different.

In the first stage of alcoholism the individual is yet to build up a notable tolerance or dependence on alcohol.

The individual is beginning to experiment with alcohol. Their drinking is often done socially, and they are beginning to experience the ‘buzz’ of drinking for the first time.

In this stage, the individual tries different types of alcohol to have a feel for the different effects.

There will be no sense of using alcohol as a coping mechanism at this point, although the individual will be becoming aware of how good drinking makes them feel.   

Stage 2: Increased Use (Early Alcoholic)

The most notable change as the individual enters this stage is the shift away from social drinking. 

The individual is likely to prefer drinking alone at this stage, often as a means of easing negative feelings such as anxieties and depressive thoughts. 

The individual’s tolerance is now increasing, and the individual will need to drink more to experience the same ‘buzz’ as before.

Alcohol will begin to become more prevalent in the individual’s life. More of their activities will be centered around drinking. The individual may begin to rely on alcohol in order to feel comfortable in social settings.

During the latter part of this stage, the individual may start to experience ‘blackout drunks,’ where they fail to remember anything from their drinking experience the night before.  

Stage 3: Problem Drinking (Middle Alcoholic)

In this stage, people around the individual will usually begin to notice behavioral and physical changes. They may be less obvious in a higher functioning alcoholic, but the individual will still display observable changes, such as:

  • Drinking during working hours
  • Increasing risks around alcohol such as driving after a few drinks
  • Increasing levels of aggression when drinking, often around loved ones.
  • Fluctuation in weight
  • A decrease in energy levels
  • Symptoms of depression

During this stage, the individual may verbalize their relationship with alcohol. It is often done defensively, comparing their drinking to more heavily affected alcoholics to illustrate that they don’t have a problem. 

They may also make seldom kept promises to people close to them regarding cutting down the frequency and amount of alcohol consumption.

The individual will often further isolate themselves as those around them become more concerned about their behavior when drinking. 

Stage 4: Addiction (Late Alcoholic) 

This is the point at which alcohol consumption becomes the chief priority of an individual. Drinking takes priority over employment, family, friends, and health.

Whilst a high functioning alcoholic will still be able to hold a job and maintain social ties, they will often feel it takes much more effort to behave normally.

The individual may experience shaking hands in the mornings and frequent heartburn as the physical addiction symptoms become more prevalent.

Attempts to cease drinking, even for a day, now come with negative side effects, which can include tremors and hallucinations.   

Finding Help

With around 20% of reported alcoholics being classed a ‘functional’ it can be difficult to notice the importance of seeking help.

If you or someone close to you is showing any signs of the four alcoholism stages mentioned in this article, then finding help is of utmost importance.

For further information on the four stages of functioning alcoholism and available treatments for alcoholism contact us today.